I wrote this for the Rowland S Howard Tribute Page on Facebook a good while back. An exercise in making a little go a long way
First a bit of background information. Being a Birthday Party fan was never easy. Or, more accurately, it was seldom a group activity. I had friends who liked all kinds of noisy, out there music made by people who inhabited the fringes of society and convention, but none of my immediate social circle were Birthday Party fans. On the other hand, I loved them! I loved them with an intensity that set them above other bands I followed. Liking the Birthday Party became a badge of honour, a way of identifying like minded souls. It seems strange in these Internet-enriched times, but finding fellow fans was not easy. At the time, I was writing to a girl who had placed an ad in the classified pages of the NME, wanting contact with fellow Birthday party fanatics, and we were in touch for many years. However, we only met at Birthday Party gigs. I had one other friend who I dragged to see a BP show at Liverpool Warehouse - he didn’t say he hated it, but he never came to see them again. I saw them three times and, at last, here was a band who were a truly unpredictable proposition. You never knew if you were going to get a conventional show or a violent confrontation, a kiss or a kick. The second time I saw the Birthday party Nick baited the crowd a little, but definitely led from the front. The next time he drank a whole bottle of Jack Daniels whilst performing, in less than an hour and finished the night collapsed at the back of the stage crying.
Moving forward to post-Birthday Party times, Nick definitely had the public’s attention. His shows were getting bigger, the critical reception was generally very good and the spotlight was firmly pointed at him. Rowland on the other hand seemed to have been critically neglected and his stock was much lower. This was obviously wrong and obviously a shame. By now I was no longer in touch with my pen pal and finding fellow believers in the cause was even harder. I did manage to drag a friend along to see Crime and the City Solution in Manchester, but no-one I knew liked or would listen to These Immortal Souls.
Moving forward again. I had a job in Our Price records - remember them? I thought this would be my ideal job – there were after all questions on the application form asking me who my favourite bands were and what kinds of music I preferred. I remember thinking that all application forms should ask these questions if they were expected to reveal anything worthwhile about a person. It actually turned out to be more concerned with shifting units and marketing the big sellers, but that’s another story. Again, this may seem strange in these download days, but it was tricky finding records and CDs by some bands, so customers would place an order and we would try to find it for them and then call them to let them know if we were successful. One day it was my job to phone customers and tell them we had their orders ready to collect. Part way through I came across a CD of Get Lost (Don’t Lie). I was amazed; I didn’t know one other person who had this! So when I phoned the guy up to tell him his order was in, I couldn’t help myself. I went against company protocol and asked him about it and generally struck up a conversation. When he came to pick his CD up we spoke again and arranged to go for a drink a few days later. Fans of TIS had to take company where they could find it, and as I mentioned earlier, this was a way of finding people who were on the same page as you. We occasionally went for drinks and swapped tapes and tales.
Anyway, this is all background. Shortly after this, I saw in the NME that These Immortal Souls were on tour. This was quite an infrequent occurrence so I had to be there. I contacted my new friend and we got tickets for their Liverpool gig. Bearing in mind that Nick Cave was by now playing some fairly big venues I found it a little sad that Rowland and TIS were playing at the tiny Planet X venue in Liverpool. I had headlined this venue myself (well, with my band) so I thought they should be playing somewhere much more prestigious. But even this venue seemed to be out of their reach as it was far from sold out, I’d played to bigger crowds there myself! Hindsight has led me to see this as an unexplainable and shameful neglect of a truly great and individual talent, but there we go, life’s like that sometimes.
Now, occasionally when I went to a gig I had an ambition to do a certain something. For example when I saw Hanoi Rocks I wanted to have my photograph taken giving Michael Monro a hug, or when I saw the Au Pairs I wanted to share a spliff with Lesley Woods. I’m not sure why these ideas even came up, but both of these ambitions were fulfilled. When I went to the These Immortal Souls the idea had formed that I wanted to buy Rowland a drink. I wasn’t sure how possible this would be but, for some reason, the ambition was there.
At the gig, the crowd was sparse and the band were just hanging around. Seeing my chance, I went to speak to Rowland. He was a surprisingly slight figure, but I always thought that when he was in the Birthday Party. It always amazed me that this thin, almost geeky looking individual was responsible for the whirlwind of noise that was emanating from his guitar amp. Even tho he was quite a weedy looking kind of guy, he had an air of something about him. Not violence exactly, but perhaps the potential for violence. Not arrogance exactly, but perhaps the potential for an aggressive tirade. He looked like the kind of person you didn’t want to argue with, not for fear of a physical attack, but because you imagine he could cut your argument dead with a well chosen barb or two. Anyway, he looked a lot more approachable this time around.
I asked him to sign a few things for me. The Honeymoon in Red album, Some Velvet Morning 12”, a CD or two. We chatted while he was signing. When he was signing Some Velvet Morning I asked him what Lydia Lunch was really like. He replied “when she was good she was very, very good, but when she was bas she was horrid”, which struck me as a great answer. Partly because it sounded true! I seized my moment and asked if I could buy him a drink. He asked for a vodka and lime which struck me as immeasurably cool, partly because it was so un-rock ‘n’ roll, i.e. because it was about as far away from a Jack Daniels or a pint of lager as you could get, but partly because it gave me a flash back to one of my earliest experiences with the demon drink. This was when I was about 13 or 14 and my mum asked me to drop some Christmas cards off at next door’s house. The lady of the house invited me in and was obviously a bit tipsy by this point. She asked me if I wanted a drink and wouldn’t hear of me having a glass of orange, so she gave me a vodka and lime! I don’t know why, I can only assume that they were big spirits drinkers. I thought it tasted nice enough, a bit strong on the lime cordial front because I was more used to having it diluted with a glass of water. I don’t remember the vodka tasting of much, but it doesn’t really does it? It also tasted a little like the Lime Barrel from a box of Terry’s All Gold chocolates, which I also loved. She must have given me three vodka and limes, quite a lot for so young a chap, and I was at least a little drunk by the time I got back home. So I bought Rowland his drink, and I got one for myself too. I was so enormously pleased to be buying him a drink, and fulfilling my latest gig ambition. I remember being at the bar asking for two vodka and limes and wanting to shout out “I’m buying a drink for Rowland S Howard!” but thankfully I managed to resist these urges. I gave Rowland his drink and we chinked glasses.
We chatted a bit more; he seemed to be quite an intense sort, his answers seemed very thought through; possibly because he’d been asked them all before, but possibly because he genuinely gave a lot of thought to what came out of his mouth. It was, is and always will be such a shame that he didn’t become more famous, because he suited being a star. He had the charisma, the talent and the bearing of someone who was born to be feted, to have his picture on a million teenage bedroom walls, to be admired from afar. Maybe there’s an alternate universe somewhere where Rowland S Howard is a name synonymous with an almost superhuman level of fame and worship. I hope so. I was a bit concerned about looking like a bit of a fanboy by this stage, so I went off to chat to the other members of the band. Genevieve was as lovely as I’d imagined, all elfin and smiley. I didn’t talk much to Harry, but I had a brief chat with Epic about the Swell Maps. I always thought it odd that two people from this underachieving tinny punk band would go on to become these respected figures, working with some of the greatest musicians I had ever seen. A friend of mine used to run away from home to stay with the Swell Maps, I asked if he remembered him. He didn’t.
During the gig, the friend I was with kept shouting out for Black Milk. When this song was about to be played, Rowland dedicated it to his ‘friend’ at the front. After the gig I never saw either of them again.
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